Big Climate Wins! Virginia General Assembly Wrap-Up Report

That’s a wrap! On Saturday, the Virginia state legislature concluded another General Assembly session. Thanks to supporters like you, we took several important steps forward on our mission to move the Commonwealth towards a just, equitable clean energy future. 

We have lots of successes to report, and a few losses, but before I get into it, I’d like to ask you to consider becoming an Action Member with Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

Now onto the update!

Here’s the insider scoop 

After several years of divided political control of the two legislative chambers and a dramatic redistricting that ousted many incumbents, new lines of power were drawn. While lawmaking is, for better or for worse, always more politics than policy, this session was exceptionally political – the Senate and House leadership advanced legislation that they hope will help them win elections and cement their individual power within the party. And many good causes fell victim to both internal politics and a very tight revenue forecast for the Commonwealth. 

Because of strong grassroots advocacy, CCAN Action Fund and partners were able to peel back the politics and accomplish a sizeable chunk of our collective climate agenda. Several bills and budgetary items are on the way to the Governor’s desk, who has until April 8 to veto or amend legislation. Then, the legislature will re-convene for a one-day session on April 17 to respond to gubernatorial amendments and vetoes. 

Climate wins on the way to the Governor

 

Climate Attacks: Swiftly Disarmed

We are in the midst of implementing several major climate policies in Virginia, including our landmark 100% clean energy bill (the Virginia Clean Economy Act), participation in a regional carbon market that funds flood resilience and low-income energy efficient housing (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI), and gradual phase-in of electric vehicles (Advanced Clean Car Standards). Once again, dozens of bills were filed to dismantle, weaken, or repeal all of these key climate policies.

This year, with a pro-climate House of Delegates, none of these efforts stood a chance. Nearly all were killed within the first two weeks of session. 

RGGI: Effort to Rejoin Passed

Even better, after years of advocacy from supporters like you, the legislature used their new majorities to demand that the Governor end his illegitimate campaign to remove the state from RGGI. The budget bill “requires the Commonwealth to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and directs the appropriate agencies to take the necessary actions to rejoin RGGI.” That’s HUGE – and it wouldn’t have happened without years of work from grassroots advocates like you.

This gets a little wonky. The Governor can amend the budget, but there is some precedent – even on this very issue – to suggest he cannot veto or amend language-only budget amendments. But we’ve seen this Governor overstep his authority on RGGI before, so we can’t consider the case closed on this action.

Either way, it is evidence that the legislature understands how vital RGGI is to cutting pollution, protecting our communities from flooding, lowering our energy consumption and energy bills, and keeping people housed while creating new energy-efficient housing. 

Shared Solar: Passed

Shared solar programs, also known as community solar, are small solar arrays that people can “subscribe to” – meaning that energy produced by the panels is credited to subscribers and offsets their electricity bill. It’s designed to allow people who may not be able to obtain rooftop solar to participate in the clean energy transition and receive the financial benefits that come with low-cost renewable energy. 

Until this session, Dominion’s shared solar program could actually raise your bill, not lower it – which it should, because these programs lower bills in every other state. And Appalachian Power does not offer any shared solar program at all. 

But Senator Scott Surovell and Delegate Rip Sullivan introduced legislation this year to task our regulators with more fairly assessing the programs costs and benefits in order to lower the cost to participate, expand the Dominion program, and create a new program for Appalachian Power customers. 

If you’ve been following this issue, you know this took years of work and several sessions. Boom! It’s over the finish line, and we’re hopeful the Governor will sign the new programs into law. 

Energy Efficiency: Passed

Energy efficiency lowers our overall energy demand, helping us get off fossil fuels while lowering our energy bills. But we haven’t truly unleashed energy efficiency’s potential in Virginia. The SAVE Act (“Savings Achieved Via Efficiency”) will require regulators to establish the most ambitious, but achievable, energy efficiency targets possible for our utilities, as well as cut some bureaucratic red tape that has prevented energy efficiency programs from getting approved. The bill was introduced by Delegate Michael Webert in the House and Senator Creigh Deeds in the Senate.

This was a big priority, and SAVE passed with massive bipartisan support in the House and cleared the Senate.

Green Bank: Passed

Senator Surovell’s Clean Energy Innovation Bank bill will create Virginia’s first “green bank” – an entity that will disburse grants, loans, credit enhancements, and other financing tools to prop up clean energy projects around the Commonwealth. It includes requirements to prioritize the creation of good quality jobs, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities and former fossil fuel communities, and will submit a draft strategic plan by October 15 of this year. It was awarded $10 million, which could allow the Bank to get up to $300 million from the federal government as matching funds at the high end. 

This is a big win for climate, but it is also likely to see amendments from the Governor – so stay tuned!

WMATA Funding: Passed

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, more commonly known as Metro) is the system of trains and buses that millions of riders in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. rely on to get to work, school, hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential services. It was essential that the legislature provide elevated state funding this year to avoid catastrophic service cuts that would have pushed people to cars and roads, increasing emissions from our already high-polluting transportation sector.

Thankfully, the legislature listened, and awarded WMATA $149.5M over the next two years. 

Spotlight on CCAN Action Fund endorsed candidates

You may remember we went all in on a couple of key races this past summer, including new House members Delegate Phil Hernandez and Delegate Michael Feggans. We’re glad we did, because both new members quickly got to work on climate and environmental justice with a particular focus on the rampant flooding that Hampton Roads residents see far too often.

The Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund offers loans to localities to assist communities damaged by flooding. Delegate Feggans passed a bill to ensure that the state agency responsible for disbursing funds prioritizes low-income communities who can afford flood clean-up the least. 

Delegate Hernandez took on several smart climate bills, including one to increase transparency about flood-related risks to renters and prospective homeowners and another to require utilities to consider grid-enhancing technologies (GETs), which increase grid efficiency and open up capacity for new clean energy projects, in their planning processes. 

Three cheers for our newest climate champs!

Climate bills that didn’t quite make it

While we’re thrilled with the progress we made this year, we’ll be honest with you: after a year of rampant wildfires, unsafe air conditions, and record heat and flooding, these steps forward are still well short of what is needed to meet climate deadlines and protect our communities and wild spaces from a changing climate. 

Many of the items CCAN Action Fund advocated for made it very close, but couldn’t clear hidden political hurdles. 

Rural Electric Vehicle Charging

Unfortunately, a conference committee could not come to an agreement on whether to create the rural electric vehicle charging program after the final budget did not include any funding for the program. This program is critical to ensure that rural Virginia does not get left behind as more and more people drive EVs, particularly given that federal funding and the private market have focused on major highways and dense urban localities. 

However, the bill got further than it had in the last several years, and initially appeared in one chamber’s budget for the first time. We will keep fighting for this program throughout the year, and will keep you informed about how to approach your lawmakers on this critical issue. 

Stopping Solar Bans

A simple bill from Senator Schuyler VanValkenburg to ensure that localities review every solar project that comes before them failed by a voice vote in a House subcommittee after crossover.  We’ve been very vocal on this issue, because we know that whenever we say “no” to clean energy, we are tacitly saying “yes” to the continued burning of fossil fuels and the environmental destruction, air pollution, and health impacts that come with it. Unfortunately, lawmakers were beleaguered with rampant misinformation about the bill. 

As with rural EV, we look forward to building a robust campaign to get this bill over the finish line next year. We hope you’ll join us!

Data Center Clean Energy Standards

You may remember our update at “crossover” in February, but in case you missed it – Virginia’s energy demand is exploding thanks to the proliferation of energy-hungry data centers, mostly in Northern Virginia. It is essential that we reckon with this surging demand by requiring data centers to meet stringent energy efficiency and clean energy targets. Sadly, the legislature had no appetite to hold the data center industry accountable this year.  

With such a short window to reign in our electric sector emissions and transition to 100% clean energy, we can’t afford to push off hard problems. It is essential that the General Assembly take action on this pressing issue next session. 

Become an Action Member

Whether we like it or not, lawmaking is more about politics than policy. In the face of organized and well-moneyed corporate opposition, CCAN Action Fund and partners can only pass strong climate bills when your activism makes the political stars align. We need you in this fight to get critical items like rural EV charging, and solar siting and data center reform over the finish line next year.

The best way to build power is to become an Action Member with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network today. Action Members contribute at least $1 to our organization and participate more regularly in our campaigns. Becoming an Action Member allows you to draw on more CCAN resources and expertise to organize  your community for climate justice. So become an Action Member today. 

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